My February 2011 blog post, “Positioning your media company as a winner brings results,” dealt with the necessity to combat the negative publicity that had afflicted our industry and damaged our brand. Today, I want to speak about brand equity and the importance of leveraging it.

I recently caught a news promo aired by the leading broadcast TV affiliate in the New York market. What struck me most profoundly was the producers’ positioning on what made their morning news programme essential to their viewers.

“Do I need an umbrella today?” queried one newscaster, followed by “Will there be alternate-side parking today?” from her colleague, followed by still more insipid questions, and a closing statement to the effect that they provided the answers to your (the viewing public’s) important questions every day.

The commercial left me dumbstruck. I had to stop, as a newsmedia marketer, and ask myself if TV news had really trivialised its role to the degree suggested by the commercial. This experience reminded me of a statement attributed to Walter Cronkite, a legend in the annals of American TV news. He said he hoped people who watched his half-hour broadcast also read a newspaper. He observed that, if the script for his entire show were set in type, it wouldn’t fill the front page of a daily newspaper.

But sheer volume of content is not the hook we should hang our hat on, either. Whether it’s print or digital, our resources are finite and choices abound. In the pressured environment of a struggling economy, we make difficult decisions about content. But we cannot forget that we have core brand values to protect. We can only hope that trust, credibility, depth, and integrity have not gone out the window with newspapers’ transition to late-breaking, 24-hour news media in the digital environment.

I know those qualities still remain at our company, and I can validate that assertion with revenues. (After all, this blog space is “Bottom-Line Marketing,” right?)

Cause marketing is not a new concept, but it is one that I feel many newspaper media companies have woefully neglected. And the best use of cause marketing is mission-centric, consistent with organisational goals and brand values. For example, at the Star-Ledger, our First Amendment obligation “to inform and involve” is directly connected to our initiative to recognise and encourage volunteer public service in our community. Over the past five years, we have received US$500,000 in foundation and corporate support for our awards and classroom programmes. And our “green” initiatives have attracted a similar amount of financial support in the same time period.

Here is a quick how-to guide:

  1. Understand brand/goal alignment: Finding the places where your goals and those of potential underwriters are aligned is the key to developing a successful cause marketing endeavour. Do some exploration — most organisations articulate their community and philanthropic commitments on their Web sites.

  2. Identify key partners: Do not limit your list of potential partners to your major advertiser list. Major employers, non-profits and foundations, government agencies, and even major corporations with no local presence may be significant prospects. And you will find that those who hold the purse strings to funding in the area of corporate responsibility or philanthropy are not the same individuals who are placing ad schedules with your ad department.

  3. Develop programmatic opportunities: Developing financial support is easier when you can point to actual community engagement, events, or other forms of programming. These need not be events or programmes managed by your company; often you can partner with or adopt an existing initiative in your market. Don’t invent the wheel if it already exists.

  4. Creatively repackage visibility: Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of cause marketing is the fact that more often than not those who need it have no interest in or budget for “advertising.” But they do want visibility and mass communication. Including an advertising proposal in a grant request is the kiss of death. Proposing to buy a full-page ad or newspaper insert will not fly. Proposing to affordably print 250,000 information-rich “posters” and distribute them directly to homes in the service area is, however, “genius.“ There is always a line item for things like printing, Web marketing, direct mail, etc. Never is there a line item marked advertising. If so, it is the first item cut. Package your media in terms that they find attractive and perceive as value.

  5. Be prepared to report outcomes: Unlike advertising clients, cause marketing underwriters clearly expect a report on what you have done with their money, not just an invoice. (Here’s an example.)

Ultimately, while being a credible and trusted brand is integral to our success in audience development and an advantage in presenting to advertising clients, it is an intangible. It’s difficult to quantify and, I have heard, subject to compromise in some media organisations in pursuit of ratings, revenue, etc.
It may sound like a contradiction of terms, but monetisation of the brand value is not only feasible, it can actually be done in a manner that builds brand value. It enables you to attract investment to amplify your organisation's role in community leadership, from both a moral and civic perpsective.